Music

David Gray Brings Back the Folktronica on 'Gold in a Brass Age'

Photo: Derrick Santini

The 11th studio album by David Gray finds him returning to the "folktronica" through which he made his name in the late 1990s, with some added twists.

Gold in a Brass Age
David Gray

IHT

1 March 2019

Although David Gray claims several chart-topping hits and successful records, on the whole, his music doesn't possess the immediacy that one might expect from an artist of his stature. Take "Babylon", Gray's most well-known song: the bedroom production is understated; the core guitar riff, a fluttery, lightweight thing; and the chorus, a hummable but not instantly irresistible tune. When broken down, "Babylon" seems like it could have been a basic album track in a dozen different situations, but something about Gray as an artist makes it possible for him to take the ordinary and, through detailed and somewhat off-kilter songwriting, elevate it to something truly great.

Gray's music rewards patience. Even on his very best records, one won't likely find the clear "pop single" or other such bids for chart-climbing. Yet listen after listen, Gray's records expand with newfound depth. Such was especially true with my experience of Mutineers, Gray's 2014 studio outing: at first, I thought it too languid, stuck in mid-tempo, but by the end of the year its songs blossomed such that the album became one of my favorites of that year.

The same holds true for Gold in a Brass Age, the 11th record in the Gray catalogue. A few tracks can be considered "high-energy" in some sense. Lead single "The Sapling" culminates in a gorgeous latticework of vocals, with almost a gospel-like cadence, a technique successfully reprised on the coda of "Hall of Mirrors". The crisp beat on second single "A Tight Ship" provides the record's midsection with a much-needed briskness. For the bulk of its 11 songs, however, Gold in the Brass Age adopts a similarly granular and slow-building approach, the kind typified by records like the international smash White Ladder (1999) and the minimalist Foundling (2010).

In keeping with Mutineers, which was produced by Lamb's Andy Barlow, Gold in a Brass Age continues with Gray's shift back toward electronic-inflected folk, following the more organic Life in Slow Motion (2005), Draw the Line (2009), and Foundling. For Gold in a Brass Age Gray teamed up with Ben de Vries, son of famous producer Marius de Vries (who helmed the studio knobs for Life in Slow Motion, Gray's finest hour), whose clean and somewhat muted production hearkens back to the days when Gray went from minor singer-songwriter status to superstardom with White Ladder. The title cut itself feels like a spiritual successor to "Babylon" with its featherweight leading guitar lick.

Yet it would be incorrect to call Gold in a Brass Age a "throwback" album for Gray, as it clearly builds upon the strengths of Mutineers. Gray does this by adopting a kind of precision-driven songwriting, a sort of deceptive minimalism. Even as some of these songs build to multilayered choruses, there's never a shred of excess. Every new harmony or instrument incorporated has a clear and specific purpose, and on several moments throughout Gold in a Brass Age Gray pulls the song back at its climax, rather than continue to cobble together more sonic elements.

"Hall of Mirrors", a Gray classic in the making, derives its momentum from a sputtery electronic beat, atop which synths and keys weave in and out. For much of the song, it's just voice, bass, and drums, with other instruments providing major-key glimmers of elation to accent Gray's vocal. Just as the song seems to reach its crescendo – you can even hear Gray sing "Let's go!" as if to usher it in – everything drops out of the mix save for some guitar strumming and hushed background vocals. Then Gray introduces the hymn-like vocal refrain on the coda: "Baby when that oh too solid ground / Comes a-rising up / Hey now, don't look down now." It's a stunning and optimistic outro, one which further cements Gray's status as one of the finest contemporary writers of love songs.

Unlike the lyrics to many of Gray's finest love songs – "This Year's Love", "Be Mine", and "The One I Love" to name a few – his lyrics on Gold in a Brass Age take an abstract and imagistic approach, avoiding narrative throughlines or obvious central conceits. There are a few relatively straightforward line groupings, such as "A Tight Ship's" lovely reflection, "We'll break the surface, snip these strings / Relearn the grace of selfless things." But these are scattered faintly throughout the LP, which prefers opaque images like "Same old deluge / Put finer feelings in the centrifuge," or "Thundering white horses / Ever frozen in stasis."

A number of these vaguer lyrical concoctions create the feeling less of words needing to be understood and more of notes needing to be heard, much in the same way one would hear a guitar chord or a piano arpeggio. This is music, after all; sound takes primacy, and Gray clearly adopted that mantra in writing Gold in a Brass Age's lyrics. This approach benefits the textural and non-narrative feeling of the record, but at times it's easy to want some clarity amidst all the abstraction. When Gray tells a story using poetic imagery, as he does on songs like Mutineers' show-stopping "Birds of the High Arctic", everything about Gray's brilliance comes full circle.

Musically, too, Gold in a Brass Age drifts at times. On the lullaby "It's Late" Gray repeats, "It's late, wake up / Honey, wake up, it's late," but the somnambulatory pace of the song is more liable to keep the listener peacefully dozing. "Furthering" concludes with a directionless smattering of auto-tune experiments on Gray's voice, indications that he perhaps spent some time listening to Bon Iver's 22, A Million. In these and a few other shortcomings of Gold in a Brass Age, the issue is rarely poor execution. Instead, some songs just feel like they didn't develop as naturally as others. Some, such as "It's Late", feel in need of a few more sonic components to round out what the song is attempting to do.

But there's an upside to moments like these as they show that nearly 30 years into his career, with a double-digit studio album count, David Gray is still exploring. He still hasn't lost the ability to write songs which grow in beauty over time, and lyrically he remains one of the most underrated living songwriters. Gold in a Brass Age's position in Gray's impressive discography will take time to be understood, but for now, it achieves a rare balance: hearkening back to the early days while pointing forward toward untrod creative ground. Gray's attitude might be best summed up in this lyric from "The Sapling": "Though we barely comprehend what the question is / Only know for certain, the answer's yes." So long as we have songwriters like Gray, willing to answer such questions, we live in fine musical times indeed.

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